Immigrant Stories: Patsy Guadnola grew up with little but influenced many
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Longtime local teacher Patsy Guadnola tells her story.
Gallacher: When I started grade school in Glenwood Springs in 1951, Patsy Guadnola was my music teacher. When I graduated from high school, she was my choir director. She was a hands-on, devoted teacher who helped raise me. I was only one of her many “children.” For 51 years she was “school Mom” to thousands of us in this little town.
I never got the chance to interview Patsy, but toward the end of her life my dear friend, Tim Burns, spent time with her, and she allowed him to record their conversation.
Burns: The first time I met Pasty was at the Glenwood Medical parking lot on a snowy day where I noticed an elderly woman struggling to make it into the clinic. I helped her into the building. She took my hand and called me her “guardian angel” for the day.
This was the beginning of an endearing friendship where I learned love comes quickly to those who are willing to give it away.
Patsy was a phenomenal storyteller but she was reluctant to be “the center of attention.” I got lucky one day at her kitchen table, and she allowed me to record our conversation:
Guadnola: When I was growing up everything south of 13th Street in Glenwood Springs was sagebrush, and during the Depression my dad would go out in the spring and hunt for baby dandelions that were just popping up out of the ground. Some still had a little bit of snow on them, and he would bring them home, and my mother would wash them for salad.
We had 40 chickens in a big chicken coop where my garage is now. We had lots of eggs.
Burns: Why did your parents emigrate from Italy?
Guadnola: I don’t know, I wish I had asked more questions. My mother and father went from Italy to Brazil with his brother who had a coffee plantation there. The coffee plantation froze, and they lost everything, and that’s when they made their way up to the United States.
My three oldest siblings were born in Brazil. I never was with all my siblings at once, but we all loved each other. My oldest brother, Tony, worked on the Avalanche Echo, Glenwood’s first newspaper. He loved newspapers. He eventually moved to California and got a job with the Los Angeles Times.
So when I was born Tony was gone. In addition to sending money home he was helping put my brother Joe through Notre Dame because Joe wanted to be an attorney. When Joe graduated he tried to pay Tony back for sending him through school. He was making good money working as an attorney, but Tony said, “Let’s wait, I think Patsy is going to want to go to school.” The two of them paid my way through Juilliard (in New York City) and would never allow me to pay them back.
Burns: Tell me the story you told me last time about your friends at Juilliard.
Guadnola: I became good friends with Beatrice and Elvira, two Jewish girls that I met when I went to Juilliard. One Sunday we were getting ready to go to see the Statue of Liberty, and I went next door to see if Elvira was ready, and when I came into her room I noticed this beautiful, wooden, hand-carved crucifix on her wall.
I told her that I thought it was beautiful, and she said, “Yes, I stole it, and some day I must bring it back.” It was then that she pulled the sleeve down on her dress and revealed the numbers. “Are those tattoos?” I asked. “No,” she said, “they branded us like cattle, and we screamed.” She told me she was in charge of the garbage at Auschwitz and that she was spared when the rest of her family was gassed because she had to take care of the garbage.
She got word from Pope Pius XII’s underground to hide in the garbage that night and get out when the garbage truck stopped, and there would be someone there to help her. She was terrified, but she did as she was told and crawled into this horrible mess and rode there until the truck stopped. When the truck stopped she got out, and she was in front of a little white Catholic church.
She cautiously made her way in and fell to the floor exhausted and traumatized, and it was there that she began to cry uncontrollably. It was the first time in a long time that she allowed herself to let go. It was in that little church that she saw the crucifix, and she took it off the wall and put it down her dress.
In the morning, members of the underground took her to a little house where she met three other girls. They were all hidden in a crawl space above the attic. The Gestapo swept through the house while they were there, and she said her heart was beating so loud she was sure they would be discovered.
I wish I had asked her how she got across to the United States. She was a wonderful musician. When I came home I was telling Father Kessler her story and he said, “Tell her that she doesn’t have to return that crucifix, she stole it from another good Jew.”
Burns: Where were you born?
Guadnola: I was born in this house. It was built in 1892, but when I think of all the kids that were raised here and raised well. Jesus was on every wall. I don’t know what made our family so close other than the fact that we were all raised to love God and go to mass every Sunday. In fact, my Mom went every day.
Mom didn’t take the babies to church, but when I turned 4 she told me I was going to go with her. She gave me a veil to wear that she said was for Jesus. To this day I can’t go into church without a veil. God makes us who we are.
It was a family of love. We were happy, we didn’t have anything, but we had everything. Day after day we ate raw dandelions with hardboiled eggs and mom’s homemade bread.
I can remember that during the Depression hobos would come to the door, and Mom would bring them in and sit them at the table. It was different then, we weren’t afraid because these were starving, hungry guys. They always wanted to work for what we gave them, but mom would say, “You have to eat first. You can’t work on an empty stomach.”
During the Depression my brother Jimmy was in charge of distributing government food. One day, he met this fella who had cardboard tied to his feet, and he sent him to our house so mom could feed him.
In those days, you were lucky to have two pairs of shoes, one pair for work and one for Sunday. So when the guy came to the door he told my mom that Jimmy had sent him for a meal, and he said, “Your son told me to tell you that his Sunday shoes are under his bed.”
So Mom got him a basin so he could wash his feet, and she found a pair of my dad’s socks. I’ll never forget my mom standing in the doorway with tears rolling down her cheeks watching this guy walk away in Jimmy’s Sunday shoes, and she turned to me and said, “I’m sure proud of my Jimmy.”
I was the youngest, and the next youngest was eight years older than me. So my mom was nearly 50 when she had me. When Doctor Hopkins told her she was pregnant she couldn’t believe it. My oldest sister was expecting her first baby.
My mother called me her little “chichulina” because I used to talk a lot. She would say, “Let’s go on a 10-minute silence retreat.” And I would nearly burst watching the clock for those 10 minutes.
I’m sure I was quite a challenge for my mom, but I think God sent me late so I could help her take care of my dad and eventually take care of her. I was also able to help my older sister, Mary, late in life. She was head accountant for 35 years at the electric company here in town.
Burns: You have touched a lot of lives not just in your immediate family but here in this community as a teacher. I can’t begin to name all the students you have mentored over the years.
Guadnola: Oh honey, I loved those kids. Those 51 years teaching meant so much to me. I was always hugging my high school kids, which is something you couldn’t do now. They would confide in me, and I would always stick up for their parents, but I would let them talk.
One year I had 120 in my high school choir.
Burns: Wow, how did you manage all those kids?
Guadnola: We never had a discipline problem. I remember one day, Floyd Diemoz, who was in my class then, came up after class and said, “Patsy, you know that girl Lavonne that sits over there. My heart flips every time I see her.” “Why don’t you ask her out, she’s really a nice girl,” I said. “Oh,” he said, “I’m afraid she’ll turn me down.”
A few days later Lavonne came up, and we had a similar conversation. I said, “Well, flirt with him a little bit, he’s really a nice guy.” Me, a high school teacher. (laughing)
Burns: And they’re still together.
Guadnola: Honey, I did all the music for their wedding. I had their children and their grandchildren in my class.
You know when I was growing up I remember thinking that I would go to college and meet some nice Catholic boy and have a big family like my mother. But it was during World War II, and most of the men were away, and there wasn’t time.
My family turned out to be all of those kids in my classes. Welcoming them as first-graders and then watching them go through high school and on to their lives. That was thrilling.
Patsy Guadnola died on March 4, 2016. She was 92.
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